Sometimes it takes a death to make us realize how much a person means to us. There may have been something of that in Joseph of Airmathea’s actions as he buries Jesus in his own tomb, recorded in Matthew 27:57–66.
Jesus’ burial marks the end of his life of humiliation in your place. Jesus’ death draws people to himself. First the centurion confesses, “Truly, this was the Son of God,” and now, Joseph, from the town of Arimathea, is drawn into an active confession of Christ. Joseph’s faith contrasts with the fear of the disciples. They have fled (though John was present for at least part of the crucifixion). Joseph was a prominent member of the Council (Luke 23:51 tells us that he had not consented to Jesus’ death). Now he openly acknowledges Christ as he goes to Pilate, the Roman governor, and asks for the body of Jesus. Despite the fact that Jesus has just been condemned and executed like a criminal, despite the fact that the Sanhedrin seems to have won in its conflict with Jesus, Joseph asks for the body, removes it from the cross, wraps it in clean linen cloth for burial, and places it in the rock-hewn tomb that he had prepared for himself. “The discrepancy between the majesty of God and the body of the man Jesus was never as great as now. This was all a part of His humiliation, but those who buried Him did not understand that.” (K. Schilder, Christ Crucified, p. 555) Women had been mentioned watching the crucifixion, and now two of them are still there observing the burial.
Burial appears to mark the end of Christ’s work. The Messiah is indeed dead. Joseph’s honor is being paid to a dead Redeemer. The burial shows that Jesus Christ is truly dead. Theories of a death-like faint are false. Death is the wages of sin. The burial of Jesus is the very last stage in his humiliation. Think of that as you are tempted to sin. He went through burial, just as you and I will, unless he returns first. The promised resurrection seems to have been forgotten. You appreciate Joseph’s willingness to associate with Jesus, but his actions are the normal ones involved in burial of the dead. The women come after the sabbath expecting to complete the anointing of their dead Lord. The disciples, too, seem to have forgotten all that Jesus had said about his resurrection. The only ones who seem to have remembered anything of Jesus’ of a coming resurrection are the chief priests and Pharisees, who consider it deception. To the casual observer the work of Jesus Christ appears to have ended, and to have ended tragically.
Trust the Savior who was placed in a tomb for your sake. The cursed death was ended. Death by crucifixion was unknown among the Israelites of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 21:22,23 refers to displaying the body after execution, probably as an example and warning. And God commanded explicitly that the body was to be removed before sundown, lest it desecrate the land, because “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The Sabbath, especially during the Passover week, must not be desecrated by the body continuing to hang on the cross. But, both the Old Testament passage and the method of Jesus’ execution point to an accursed death. Jesus had undergone God’s curse on sin. He had borne God’s righteous anger against sinners. The guilt of your sins had weighed him down and had taken him to the cross. “We cannot be partakers of the Christ’s resurrection life unless we are partakers of his death, and death is certified and confirmed in burial.” (John Murray, the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 1, p. 216) Now that phase of humiliation has ended. Your salvation is totally by God’s grace. The contrasts are staggering. The God-man is dead, the Lord of life has been placed in a tomb. Christ is dead and remains under the power of death for a time. Jesus rested as the Redeemer of his people. Jesus was honorably buried. It was not thrown into an unmarked grave, as might have been the case with the other criminals. The respectful treatment of the dead was important in the Scriptures. Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all laid to rest in the promised land. The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah was a statement of faith. It expressed the confidence that God would be faithful to his promises and would eventually give the promised land to those who were nomadic strangers in it. “In connection with the burial of the dead, therefore, we are not to think only of the body. According to Scripture, man enters the realm the dead. Unless we understand this we will not grasp the significance of Christ’s death and burial. At His burial not only was something done with His body, but He entered the realm of the dead. After all, Scripture usually does not say that He is risen from ‘death’ but from ‘the dead.’ As man He also went to ‘the dead.’ On the other hand, this does not rule out that Christ, in the spirit, wen to the Father. It all depends on the side from which we view things.” (S. G. DeGraaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, p. 169) Although those performing this burial apparently did not act with an awareness of the resurrection, the God who sovereignly planned your salvation had ordered this rest between Christ’s suffering and his resurrection. Joseph’s tomb was new and unused, not by chance, but because God is showing you that there will be something dramatically different about this burial. The burial of Jesus forms a crucial element of the gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:3–4; Romans 6. Ironically, the one group that remembers Jesus’ repeated words about rising the third day, is his enemies (Matthew alone records the sealing and guarding of the tomb). The chief priests join the Pharisees in seeking Pilate’s permission to secure the grave. Note their reference to Jesus as “that deceiver” and the supposed resurrection as “deception.” What they fear is not an actual resurrection, like modern, scientific men, they know that can’t happen. What they fear is the disciples stealing the body from the tomb, and claiming a resurrection. Pilate either grants them a guard or authorizes the use of the temple guards for this purpose and orders them to secure the tomb. The absolutely crucial element in the preaching of the early church was the resurrection of the Savior. Ironically, the leaders of Israel, in trying to guard against a pretend claim to the resurrection, ensure that the body could not have been stolen by the disciples. Their actions would later help confirm the truth of the resurrection! This burial marks the end of Christ’s humiliation. He fulfills Isaiah 53:9. Humiliation is about to give way to exaltation.
Christ truly entered death, but it could not hold him. Death is about to work backwards! When you face death, if you do it as one who trusts in Christ, do it with the knowledge that even this path is one on which your Savior has preceded you. His triumph ensures your resurrection. “Let us thank God that, when we ourselves enter into the valley of the shadow of death, we have infinitely more than a promise to stay our hearts upon, that ours is the fulfillment of the promise, the fact of the resurrection, nay the risen Lord himself present with rod and staff beside us.” (Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory, p.90) Jesus was buried as your Savior, just as he lived, died, and rose as your Savior. You are united with him in his death, and burial. As one buried with the Savior, you have died to sin. As one who shares in his resurrection your new life is visible in the way you live this week. See Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 15. You have made a definitive break with the enslaving power of sin. To continue to sin is as inappropriate as it would be to live in a tomb or to wear burial cloths. The power of the resurrection is yours.
Indeed in this case it does take the death and burial of the person to make you realize just how meaningful his life and death really were. But, by God’s grace, it is not too late to respond appropriately, for the Lord who was buried lives again!